It’s late June and few people are thinking about politics, even though a campaign to elect a new U.S. Senator from Massachusetts is in its final days.
A special state election will be held on Tuesday to fill the seat left vacant by John Kerry who left in January to take the job as U.S. Secretary of State.
The two candidates for this key Senate seat could not be more different.
U.S. Rep. Edward Markey is a Democrat and Malden native who represents Massachusetts from the fifth congressional district. He is the longest-serving member of the Massachusetts delegation, known for his work on telecommunications and energy policies and his strong stance in favor of gun control. He won the endorsement of The Boston Globe this week.
Gabriel Gomez is a Republican and political newcomer who was born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents. A Navy Seal and Harvard Business School graduate, Mr. Gomez is an investment banker who lives in Cohasset. He supports gay marriage and although he is pro-life, he says he would not change existing abortion laws. He won the endorsement of the Lowell Sun this week.
The Gazette has a longstanding policy of not endorsing candidates for office, and that is not our purpose in writing this week. Instead, we wonder whether the electorate is being served by the timing of this election.
Despite various public endorsements, including a visit from President Obama, and three televised debates, the election has attracted little attention, in part no doubt because it falls at the very outset of summer. Under state law, a special election must be held between 145 and 160 days after a vacancy occurs. The winner of the special election will serve out Mr. Kerry’s term, which expires in 2014.
The mid-term vacancy appointment and special election laws in Massachusetts have a convoluted political back story. Through the 20th century, mid-term vacancies were filled with a governor’s appointee, with the appointment expiring at the next biennial state election. This seems like a reasonable approach, allowing for the election to occur at a predictable time.
But in 2004, the Democratic-controlled state legislature changed that process, removing the governor’s appointment power entirely and requiring a special election. The law was enacted over a veto by then-Gov. Mitt Romney. The legislative leadership was concerned that Mr. Romney, a Republican, would appoint a Republican if Democratic Sen. John Kerry was elected president.
The law was changed once more in 2009, when Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was terminally ill with brain cancer, sought to have a short-term successor named when he died. An interim-appointment amendment was passed and in September 2009 Gov. Deval Patrick named Paul Kirk, a former Kennedy aide, to fill the vacant seat temporarily and a special election was scheduled for another odd time of year, January.
If the Democrats thought tinkering again with the process would help their cause, the strategy backfired when Republican Scott Brown was elected to the seat that had been held by Mr. Kennedy for 46 years. The Democrats regained control of the seat when Elizabeth Warren won a hard-fought race against Mr. Brown last November.
Party affiliations aside, the special election law seems to have done little but create a new off-cycle of voting, an event that is no doubt costly to administer. The winner of Tuesday’s election will be looking for re-election in just over a year. Only three other states require special elections to fill mid-term vacancies: Oregon, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
Lackluster campaigns like the Senate race between Mr. Markey and Mr. Gomez only lend support to the argument to abolish the law, and Massachusetts Democrats who meddled with a perfectly adequate electoral process should now lead the effort to restore it.
Meanwhile, there is an election in front of us and a real choice to be made.
Remember to vote on Tuesday. Polls are open in every Island town from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.